More than ten years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, counterterrorism practitioners, academics and policymakers are still struggling to understand what motivates men who have spent their formative and early adult years in Western urban settings – like London, Toronto, Copenhagen, New York or Madrid – to turn against the countries of their citizenship or residence and attack them.
One answer – found after dissecting tens of thousands of pages of trial transcripts from the prosecutions of 14 of the most important “al Qaeda” plots launched against the West in the last decade – is that the perceived political grievance of Western powers fighting abroad in Muslim lands has been a consistent and often repeated political justification for terrorist acts against the West.
Issues of loyalty figure prominently in the turn to violence for individuals raised in the West. As these individuals radicalize to violence, their loyalty switches from their home country to that of a transnational Islamic cause that is epitomized by al Qaeda. For example, British-born Omar Khyam, who plotted to attack a night club and mall in the UK as part of Operation Crevice, said that by 2002-2003, he became convinced that the West was at war against Islam. British participation in the invasion of Iraq was the catalyst for his changed perspective and his switch of loyalty.
He said: “The first time I was hearing people saying that the UK should be attacked was when the Afghan war started in 2001. But it wasn’t a majority. At that time I would make excuses for Britain, saying they had no choice. We were born here so we felt some allegiance to the UK. But this changed after the Iraq invasion. The Iraq war was the final straw. People really didn’t understand why they were attacking Iraq. Was it because there was some oil involvement? It was a war on Islam also. I was in Pakistan at that time. A lot of people’s attitudes changed. Whereas before myself and others made excuses, now they believed the UK and America needed to be attacked.”
Another common theme repeatedly expressed by those who plotted to attack the West was the desire to deliver retribution for Western countries’ foreign policy decisions and actions. For example, in the recorded video statement of July 7, 2005 London underground suicide bomber Mohammed Siddique Khan, his explanation for the attack included the following:
“Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters. Until we feel security, you will be our targets and until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.”
Another bomber, Shehzad Tanweer, also cited vengeance in his video, noting that the non-Muslims of Britain deserved such attacks because they voted for a government that "continues to oppress our mothers, children, brothers and sisters in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya."
Failure of Non-Violent Protest
The turn to violence by a number of plotters was an evolutionary change that followed after they concluded that non-violent political action would not produce changes in their countries’ foreign policies. Like Khyam, Ahmed Abdulla Ali, one of the 2006 Transatlantic Liquid Bomb plotters, testified that the Iraq war was the critical event that catalyzed his feelings against the United States and the UK. He explained how, after participating in demonstrations and protests, he came to the conclusion that political protests and relief work were insufficient to change the underlying problem – British foreign policy.
“… I became less enthusiastic and confident in things like protests and marches. We had the biggest march ever, 1 million people, and it didn’t seem to do anything…So to sum it up, basically I though the root problem was not dealing with refugees and protests, these are just dealing with the symptoms. The root problem was the foreign policy and that’s something that should be tackled.”
While many of the messages delivered by the plotters are framed in religious language to provide a moral justification (or even religiously mandated obligation) for the planned terrorist act, their statements in fact reveal political grievances against Western foreign policy embedded in their religious vocabulary. For example, prior to his attempted attack, the infamous “Shoe Bomber,” Richard Reid, wrote in a letter to his mother that:
“what I am doing is part of the ongoing war between Islam and disbelief . . . I didn’t do this act out of ignorance nor did I do just because I want to die, but rather I see it as a duty upon me to help remove the oppressive American forces from the muslim lands . . . we do not have other means to fight them . . . we are ready to die defending the true Islam rather to just sit back and allow the American government to dictate to us what we should believe and how we should behave . . . this is a war between Islam and democracy.”
Similarly, one of the 2009 New York city subway plotters, Adis Medunjanin, explained that he turned to violence in response to perceived moral violations of U.S. foreign policy against the global Muslim community. That he:
“saw the reporting regarding the way Muslims were being treated at the Abu Ghraib prison (new images had been released at around this time). This angered him and caused him to promote jihad at the mosque and after the basketball game with friends, but no one had the balls. Adis felt that he had to do something to join the fight that his fellow Muslims were in. There was so much that the US was doing that was nor right, that he had to do something to help his fellow Muslims…Adis decided that he would go to Afghanistan and join the Taliban. There he would fight and kill US soldiers that were stationed there.”
Vengeance, the failure of non-violent protest activity and perceived religious obligations all contributed to the ultimate purpose of each of the 14 plots: coercing Western powers to change their foreign policies.
According to one witness at the trial of the 2004 Madrid plotters, Spain’s participation in the Iraq war provided the justification to attack Spain. The witness noted that “given the perspectives of the conflict in Iraq, Spain had become an enemy of Islam, and then, it would be necessary to attack Spain.” However, the actual timing and nature of the attack were believed to be heavily influenced by the posting of the suggestion to attack Spain on a website – Jihadi Iraq – found on the computer of one of the plot’s leaders. The posting called for a campaign of bombings to occur shortly before Spain’s general elections, leading to the election of a new government which would then withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq.
The coercive intent was clear: “Therefore we say that in order to force the Spanish government to withdraw from Iraq, the resistance should deal painful blows to its forces… It is necessary to make utmost use of the upcoming general election in Spain in March next year. We think that the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after which it will have to withdraw as a result of popular pressure.”
Shehzad Tanweer, one of the London underground suicide bombers, echoed this coercive purpose:
"What have you witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq. And until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel."
Similarly, Abid Nacer Benbrika, the ideologue behind Operation Pendennis – in which two groups of Australian men in Sydney and Melbourne planned attacks on key locations in Australia – also sought to use terror to coerce changes to Australian foreign policy. Benbrika said that Muslims were committed to engage in violent jihad to persuade the government to withdraw Australian troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.
He told one of his acolytes, "We don't want to just kill one, two or three, if we kill a thousand then they will sit up and listen and then they will bring the troops back from Iraq.” Benbrika preached that there was no difference between the government and the people who elected the government officials.
Lastly, in the 2006 Toronto 18 Plot, the conspirators aimed to conduct bombings that would surpass the London 2005 bombings and would “pressure Canada into withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.”
Grievances that Can Never be Satisfied
Yet, the fact that foreign policy actions abroad have had an effect on catalyzing terrorist actions at home does not mean that foreign policy decisions should be predicated and dependent on avoiding such attacks.
This is because, as events in Madrid suggest, for every grievance that is potentially addressed, there are others that cannot be satisfied. Found in the ruins of the exploded apartment building near Madrid, was the shredded remains of a videotape. It was the final statement of members of the cell, which called itself “the brigade situated in Al Andalus,” which had carried out the March 11, 2004 attacks.
Beyond Spanish participation in Iraq, the members of the cell cited another grievance – the Spanish occupation of Al Andalus (Spain), which began in 1492 with Ferdinand and Isabella’s re-conquest of Spain from the Moors: “You know of the Spanish crusade against Muslims, and that not much time has passed since the expulsion from Al Andalus and the tribunals of the Inquisition. Blood for blood. Destruction for destruction!”
So even if the Spanish government withdrew from Iraq, the Spanish occupation of Andalusia dating back to 1492 was still a live grievance that would justify more terror and more coercion until it too was rectified – an impossible demand.
Moreover, conversations with Spanish security officials confirmed that in spite of the Spanish withdrawal from Iraq in 2005-2006, not only did the terrorist threat to Spain not decline, but plotting against Spain continued and peaked four years later with the arrest of ten men in Barcelona in January 2008 who were part of Operación Cantata – a plot to launch suicide bombers against the public transport system in Barcelona.
Policymakers and security officials should not try to accommodate this perpetual and impossible to meet list of political grievances. Instead, they should continue to make foreign policy decisions that they believe are in the national interest, while factoring in and preparing for the potential blow-back that those decisions may trigger.